Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Lean In" and the Olympics of Feminism

I'm not sure if this analogy is going to work but I'm going to give it a try since I try to relate most things to the Olympics.

We who follow Olympics sports--or any professional level sport for that matter--celebrate the pinnacle of athleticism and achievement. We marvel at feat of strength that push bodies to the edge of their abilities, at the ability to perform high level difficulty under pressure in front of millions of people that takes indescribable mental strength and stamina. It's little wonder that we become enamored of watching their performances and daydreaming about what it would be like to be able to do the same things.

Except that most of us aren't exceptional athletically. You need to be born with those gifts. You need to win a very specific kind of genetic lottery to be an elite gymnast and then you've got to work like hell because you're not competing against average or even above average gymnasts--your competing against every other lottery winner out there, not your average athlete. I kind of can't help but laugh when Olympic medal winning gymnasts, in their bildungsroman, describe how they weren't very talented. That, of course, is ridiculous. They might not have been as gifted as another athlete at that tier, but they were immensely talented, much more so than the rest of us mere mortals.

This brings us to feminism, particularly the type being peddled by the likes Sheryl Sandberg. This fantastic op-ed in the Daily Beast notes that while we're mourning the recently deceased Muriel Siebert, who was the first woman to have a seat on the NY Stock Exchange and was worth $1 billion (I just said that in a Dr. Evil tone) many other women are going on strike to protest their fast food wages. These are women who are struggling to raise families on minimum wage in New York City. About 13 percent of fast food workers need to supplement their income with food stamps. (In that sense, we're subsidizing the fast food industry--they continue to pay their workers too little to survive and we make up the difference via food stamps and other forms of public assistance. This would be one example of corporate welfare.)

While we're looking up to women who ascend to the highest heights, we're forgetting about those who toil near the bottom, who are dealing with gender, racial, and economic inequality. This is why our view of feminism needs to be intersectional--many of the most vulnerable women are not beset by just one "ism" but by many. Making feminism about glass ceilings and winning the ultimate race for the boardroom leaves many women out of the discussion.

I don't think that Sandberg is bad for feminism; it's just that her brand of feminism is the Olympics of the movement. Hers is aspirational feminism. It's like looking at gorgeous models or really expensive clothing that you'll never be able to afford. Hers is not attainable by most women and it doesn't actually help most of the women who so desperately need to be helped by feminism. It mainly addresses women like herself--white, born into economic and educational privilege. It shows them how to succeed against men who are similarly well-born. This is an example Olympic athletes competing against Olympic athletes, people who have such a huge head start on the rest of the pack. Sure, every once in awhile some from less auspicious beginnings breaks through and is successful but that is less and less likely with stagnant wages, rising education costs, and general economic inequality.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating women who make it to the top of their fields just as there is nothing wrong with celebrating athletes who reach the pinnacle of their sports. But gymnastics wouldn't be so popular if all we cared about were the elites. And feminism won't be nearly as powerful if we only pay attention to those vying for the peaks. 

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